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Embattled Virginia governor: ‘I’m not going anywhere’

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 10, 2019, 12:34 p.m.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion Feb. 9 in Richmond, Va. The embattled governor says he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing racial “equity.” Northam told the Washington Post that there is a higher reason for the “horrific” reckoning over a racist photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. (Katherine Frey / Associated Press)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion Feb. 9 in Richmond, Va. The embattled governor says he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing racial “equity.” Northam told the Washington Post that there is a higher reason for the “horrific” reckoning over a racist photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. (Katherine Frey / Associated Press)
By Alan Suderman Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam considered resigning amid a scandal that he once wore blackface, but the pediatric neurologist said Sunday that he’s “not going anywhere” because the state “needs someone that can heal” it.

Northam made the comments on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” saying it’s been a difficult week since a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, showing a person wearing blackface next to a second person wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was the one in blackface, but then denied it the next day, while acknowledging that he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.

“Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” Northam said. “Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”

Northam’s political turmoil comes as the two other top Democrats in the state face their own potentially career-ending scandals, with allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax – Northam’s successor if the governor were to resign – and Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledging that he wore blackface at a party in 1980. Herring would become governor if both Northam and Fairfax resigned.

The scandals have become a full-blown crisis for Virginia Democrats. Although the party has taken an almost zero-tolerance approach to misconduct among its members in this (hash)MeToo era, a housecleaning in Virginia could be costly: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor.

The scandals also could hurt the Democrats’ chances of flipping control of the General Assembly. All 140 legislative seats will be up for grabs in November and Democrats had previously been hopeful that voter antipathy toward President Donald Trump would help them cement Virginia’s status as a blue state. Now many fret their current crisis in leadership will not only cost them chances of winning GOP-held seats, but also several seats currently held by Democrats.

Two women allege Fairfax sexually assaulted them, and both have offered to testify if an impeachment hearing were called against him. The lieutenant governor issued a statement Saturday again denying he ever sexually assaulted anyone and making clear he does not intend to immediately step down. Instead, he urged authorities to investigate the allegations against him.

Herring has apologized for appearing in blackface – an admission he made after rumors began circulating at the Capitol – but has not indicated he would resign either, despite his initially forceful call for Northam to step down.

Asked Sunday for his opinion on his subordinates, Northam said in the CBS interview that it’s up to Fairfax and Herring to decide whether they want to remain in office. He said he supports Fairfax’s call for an investigation into the sexual assault allegations. Of Herring, he said that “just like me, he has grown.”

Democratic Del. Patrick Hope said he wants to introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax on Monday, but Hope is not a powerful figure in the House and there’s little sign there’s a broad appetite for impeachment with lawmakers set to finish this year’s legislative session by the end of the month.

If a hearing did occur, attorneys for both of the women accusing Fairfax – Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson – say they would be willing to testify. The Associated Press does not generally name victims of alleged sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.

Watson alleges that Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000, her attorney said in a statement. Tyson, a California college professor, alleges that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.

While denying the allegations, Fairfax called on authorities, including the FBI, to conduct a full investigation.

“Frankly, we really want any entity with comprehensive investigative power to thoroughly look into these accusations,” Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said. “There needs to be verification of basic facts about these allegations. It feels like something bigger is going on here.”

Northam’s pledge Sunday to work on healing the state’s racial divide was the second he made in as many days. In his first interview since the scandal erupted, a chastened governor told The Washington Post on Saturday that the uproar has pushed him to confront the state’s deep and lingering divisions over race, as well as his own insensitivity. But he said that reflection has convinced him that, by remaining in office, he can work to resolve them.

“It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do,” Northam said in the interview, conducted at the Executive Mansion. “There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity.”

Also Saturday, Northam made his first official public appearance since he denied being in the photo, attending the funeral for a state trooper killed in a shootout. But he made no public comments.

The lieutenant governor did not make any public appearances Saturday and released his statement late in the day, after Cox, the Republican House speaker, and the Democratic Party of Virginia joined a chorus of other calls for Fairfax to resign.

Virginia’s Democratic congressional delegation was split.

If Fairfax were to leave, it’s unclear who could replace him as lieutenant governor. Northam may try to appoint a Democrat, while Republicans could mount a legal challenge with the goal of having Sen. Steve Newman, the Senate’s pro tem, serve as both a voting senator and temporary lieutenant governor.

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